By Ashley Goodman.
After weeks of bolstering hype with dramatic and sometimes blood-soaked advertisements, Discovery Channel has finally kicked off its 29th annual Shark Week, which began on July 23 and will continue through July 30. This year, Shark Week will premiere in over 220 countries around the world.
The week of shark festivities is a great way to initiate conversation and education about sharks and shark conservation efforts. Though Shark Week encourages important conversation about sharks, there is an undetected threat lurking below Shark Week’s murky waters… is Shark Week actually all that good for sharks?
Programs about the apex predators’ importance in ocean ecosystems are definitely valuable in encouraging people to care about sharks, but the advertisements and programs that get the most attention are often the ones that depict sharks as cold-blooded serial killers. The more bloody and dramatic the depiction of sharks, the more excitement the program draws, and Discovery Channel certainly knows their audience.
Combining colorful language, dripping red fonts and Jaws theme music, Discovery Channel has historically used Shark Week to cash in on the terror and allure of Hollywood’s long-perpetuated fear of sharks.
Shark Week earns Discovery Channel some of its highest ratings, and the positive programming about sharks is worth noting. Nonetheless, some viewers, journalists, and scientists have noticed that Shark Week has seemingly become more and more sensationalist with each passing year.
Marine biologist and Shark Week critic, David Shiffman, for example, has interviewed with countless publications to shine a light on Shark Week’s controversial tendencies. He argues that Discovery Channel has released problematic and sensationalist programs that favor the dramatic over the objective, even at the expense of meaningful, accurate education. As a result, viewers’ already negative perceptions of sharks can be even further exaggerated, cementing a worldwide image of sharks as frightening, dangerous creatures.
“Twenty-four percent of all sharks, skates, and rays are listed as ‘threatened with extinction,’” Shiffman said in an interview with Newsweek. “It’s a lot harder to get people to care about saving something if they’re irrationally afraid of it and think that it should be extinct. And Shark Week has played no small role in this fearmongering.”
Indeed, positive conversation about sharks is more important than ever as sharks are threatened by endangerment and overfishing. While Discovery Channel has faced its fair share of controversy for its sometimes unnecessarily dramatic portrayal of sharks, its positive programming has become increasingly valuable.
Discovery Channel has played heavily on negative stereotypes of sharks, taking advantage of the stereotypes it should be fighting in order to attract higher ratings and viewership. But it has also shown viewers the animals’ innate strength and beauty. Shark Week is, after all, not meant to be a criminalization of sharks but instead a celebration of their species. Its facts may be sandwiched between suspenseful music and dramatic shark footage, but Discovery Channel is still always the first to teach viewers that sharks don’t deserve the bad rap.
In reality, Hollywood’s sensationalism makes sharks’ true threat to humans seem almost nonexistent. In the year 2016, the International Shark Attack File investigated and confirmed a total of 81 unprovoked shark attacks on humans. Only four were fatal. More broadly, your likelihood of death by shark attack is 1 in 3,748,067. You are 75 times more likely to be killed by lightning.
Groups like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are saying that the number of sharks killed by humans is much more staggering. The journal Marine Policy estimates that humans are responsible for approximately 100 million shark deaths annually. In a 2014 study, the IUCN Shark Specialist Group classified approximately a quarter of species in the class Chondrichthyes (which includes sharks, rays, and chimaeras) as threatened due to overfishing. Only about a third were deemed safe by IUCN Red List criteria.
Overfishing, both intentional and incidental, has taken a great toll on shark populations. Sharks are frequently caught accidentally in fishing nets, killed by fearful locals, or captured for their meat, especially their fins. The fins are highly valued in the aptly named Asian delicacy, shark fin soup.
In response to the high demand for shark fins, fishermen have turned to a practice called “finning,” in which fishers catch sharks and rays, cut off their fins and cast their bodies back into the ocean, leaving the animals to bleed out or drown. Although finning is banned in many areas, lenient enforcement makes the restrictions less effective.
The risk of extinction is substantially higher for sharks and other members of the Chondrichthyes class. Sharks tend to mature slowly and produce few young, making the current rate of overfishing all the more unsustainable. Sharks’ rebound rate fails to keep up with increasing rates of shark mortality, so the more sharks we kill, the more their populations as a whole suffer.
Shark endangerment affects much more than the sharks themselves. The ocean’s complex ecosystems, and even humans’ fishing industry rely heavily on the delicate balance maintained by sharks’ presence. Sharks are apex predators, the predators at the top of the food chain responsible for maintaining balance between the plants and animals beneath them.
Sharks are very efficient hunters; they mostly weed the sicker, weaker fish from schools, and some sharks eat carcasses littering the ocean’s floor. By hunting selectively, sharks reduce spread of disease and strengthen gene pools.
They also keep fish populations in check. For example, tiger sharks in Hawaii ensure the growth of seagrass beds by reducing turtle populations. In North Carolina, great sharks prey upon species of stingray that eat bay scallops and quahogs. As shark numbers have declined, stingrays have flourished and devoured increasing numbers of the clams and scallops; fisheries and restaurants have lost revenue and even shut down due to the shortage of shellfish in local waters.
Further, by hunting lesser predators, sharks indirectly increase populations of herbivores that eat invasive and dominant algae. If allowed to expand freely, those same algae would take over and eventually kill the coral reefs that many fish call home.
Sharks keep the vibrant ecosystems of the ocean running smoothly. They encourage healthy fish communities and prevent overpopulation by eating weak and sick fish and allow herbivores to live freely and maintain the health of algae, grass, and coral. Sharks keep the ocean running, and by taking care of the species that are vital to many of our diets, they keep the fishing industry alive and well.
Sharks are in danger. They can’t reproduce quickly enough to replenish the populations we kill, and if we don’t do something soon, the delicately balanced communities of the ocean will take a turn for the worse. Education about sharks’ importance and the value of conservation efforts is crucial to ensuring that sharks have a future.
Shark Week has proffered a double edged sword. Shark Week encourages conversation about sharks, their strengths and their importance. Many of the programs Discovery Channel features are led by scientists who share true concern for sharks and the dangers they face, and who are eager to educate others about why we ought to protect them.
Other times, however, we have to dive beneath the chummy waters of Hollywood sensationalism, the unnecessarily dramatic and bloody depictions of sharks that, albeit captivating, rely heavily on the negative images that have driven a seemingly worldwide fear of sharks. As long as the media encourages viewers to fear and resent these creatures, the education hidden underneath the dramatic can never fully come through.
This Shark Week, microwave some popcorn and enjoy the suspense-driven music, death-defying shark encounters, and thrilling documentaries about giant sharks lurking in the ocean’s waters. After all, who wouldn’t want to know whether a shark or a gator would win in a fight? But try to look past the gory videos and gravelly Australian accents: beyond the sensationalism, there’s always something more to learn about the beauty and the importance of the misunderstood shark.